The ‘work group’: redressing the balance in bion’s experiences in groups abstract

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1 Bion published ‘Group relations: A re-view’ on three occasions, 1952, 1955 and 1961, making changes in 1955, which reflect his psychoanalytic work. For analysis of these changes, see Sanfuentes, 2003.

2 For the development of Bion’s ideas on groups and their application in a variety of organizational and educational contexts, see for example, Human Relations, special issue on integrating psychodynamic and organizational theory, 1999, 52(6); Armstrong, 2005; Colman & Geller, 1985; Cytrynbaum & Noumair, 2004; Fraher, 2004; Gould et al., 2001, 2004; Hopper, 2003; Lawrence, 1979; Lipgar & Pines, 2003a, 2003b; Palmer, 2000, 2002; Pines, 1985; Trist & Murray, 1990. For a full bibliography of Bion’s work and secondary literature, see Karnac, 2008.

3 We also follow Bion’s use of ‘basic assumption’ and ‘work group’ without hyphens when used as nouns, and with hyphens when used as adjectival phrases – ‘basic-assumption mentality’, ‘work-group mentality’ – despite discrepancies in the literature on Bion, and even occasionally in his own work: ‘a part of basic assumption mentality’ (Bion, 1961: 159).

4 This imbalance is reflected in the proliferation of work on the basic assumptions. For example, two recent volumes, Building on Bion (Lipgar & Pines, 2003a, 2003b), include 90 references to basic assumptions but only 14 to the work group. The three Group Relations Readers (Colman & Bexton, 1975; Colman & Geller, 1985; Cytrynbaum & Noumair, 2004) have between them three times more references to basic assumptions than to the work group; and Pines (1985) has 42 references to basic assumptions but none at all to the work group. Similarly, in the recent Dictionary of the Work of W.R. Bion (López-Corvo, 2003), the entry for ‘Basic assumption’ is twice as long as that for ‘Work group’, and there are separate entries for each of Bion’s three assumptions, as well as a further entry for ‘Oscillations of Dependent basic assumptions’. More striking than the sheer weight of references, however, is the fact that the basic assumptions have been extended in a way that simply has not occurred with the work group. Bion himself describes three basic assumptions, pairing (baP), dependence (baD) and fight-flight (baF), while leaving work-group mentality (W) undifferentiated, as an apparently unified state. A fourth assumption has been identified, differently described as basic-assumption Oneness (baO) by Turquet (1974), and as basic-assumption Incohesion: Aggregation/ Massification (baIA/M) by Hopper (2003); and a fifth by Lawrence et al. (1996) – basic-assumption Me-ness (baM).

5 In the literature, there is some variation in the use of abbreviations; here we follow Bion (1961: 105): baP, baD, baF and W.

6 The description early in Experiences in Groups of seven qualities making up the ‘good group spirit’ (Bion, 1961: 25) might be taken as a preliminary sketch of the characteristics of work-group mentality.

7 For the importance of the idea of learning by experience in Bion’s work, see Bion, 1962, 1967. See also Levine, 2002.

8 This group state is reminiscent of ‘the phenomenon of not learning’ in individual analysis, described by Riesenberg-Malcolm; an ‘as-if’ response, which she suggests is unconsciously intended ‘precisely to avoid any emotional learning.’ (Riesenberg-Malcolm, 1999: 125-6.)

9 It may not be surprising that it was in the context of work with leaders that we first had these thoughts. Bion asserted that: ‘All three basic assumptions contain the idea of a leader.’ (Bion, 1961: 160.)

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